Nick took them lower, winding his way down through a labyrinth of tunnels. Only when these tunnels became tighter and darker did Rebecca realise they were heading deep into the underCity. As the City had grown, building itself layer upon on layer, the lower regions had been largely forgotten. This was where the Unemployed hung out. Why was Nick taking them down here? There was no reason for him to visit the underCity, ever. Even though her brother was only a mechanic he could still afford a place on one of the lower, but outer levels of the City. He shared it with three other guys, it was small, but it was still respectable.
Finally, they pulled off what passed for the main thoroughfare and into a cramped street lit only by dull yellow fluorescent lights that swung down from the high ceiling. These were spaced far too far apart to provide sufficient illumination, not even taking into account the ones that were broken or flickering sadly. Pools of inky blackness stretched between them. Nick pulled up beside a door built directly into the tunnel wall.
"Well, here we are," Nick said. "Nice and safe."
"Safe?" Rebecca asked, her voice wavering. "Aren't you afraid someone's going to do something to your car - or to you?"
"Someone pinched a tyre the first time he came down here," Steph said with a smirk. "But I've made sure since then everyone knows he's with me."
Rebecca didn't know how the young woman, no taller or stronger than she, could vouch for Nick's safety but she didn't voice her thoughts.
They exited Nick's car and entered the door in the tunnel wall. It opened onto a dirty concrete hallway. The walls were damp and grey with scattered messages spray painted or scratched on. A precarious looking staircase led upwards. They climbed this to a landing, where two more doors opened to either side. As they reached the landing the door on the left swung open and an old man with grey matted hair and beard, shabby clothing and intense eyes came out.
"I was hoping I'd catch you!" he said, his voice reverberating off the concrete walls.
Rebecca prepared to bolt but only managed to take a single step back before she bumped into Nick.
Steph hardly seemed perturbed by the man's entrance. Instead, she just grinned. "Hi Charlie. You holding up okay?"
"Same as always, same as always," said Charlie, still shouting as if he thought they were all having trouble hearing him. But he wasn't paying much attention to Steph. He was focused instead on Jason. With an almost childlike delight he pushed himself forward and grasped the man's hand. "Jason Gray, right?"
"I don't think we've met." Jason still looked a little off-colour. He gripped the railing behind him with his free hand, as if it was the only thing keeping him upright as Charlie pumped his arm enthusiastically.
"No, no, of course not," said Charlie. "But Steph has told me all about the wonderful things you've been doing and all about everything below. I think it's great that you're trying to overthrow the System and helping the Unemployed. It's tried to keep us down, tell us that all that stuff didn't exist. We would've believed it too if it wasn't for Steph coming down here."
"We?" Jason said coldly. He fixed Steph with a steely glare.
"I may have told a few people, yeah," she admitted. "I needed contacts, people to help me... what did you expect me to do?"
"I haven't told anyone who doesn't need to know, Jason, I promise," said Charlie. "You don't have to worry."
Jason didn't look worried. He looked some combination of irritated, uncomfortable, and like he was about to pass out.
"Um, we should probably get to work, Charlie," said Steph.
"Of course!" said Charlie. "I won't keep you; I just wanted to see the famous Jason Gray in person." He pumped Jason's hand again and Jason again clung to the railing for support. Steph pushed herself between them and carefully extricated Jason from Charlie's grip before steering the other man back to his own door.
"I hope I'll see you again sometime!" Charlie called, still grinning as Steph pushed him back inside.
"Sorry," Steph said when he'd gone.
Jason sighed. "Don't be. I gave you a job to do; you did it. But Charlie's going to be disappointed. I have no intention of helping anyone in this damn City."
"You know," said Steph. "There are some people here who could use help. Since I've been here, I've seen a lot of..."
"Can we just go inside?"
The door to their right led to a tiny unit. If it could be called that. It had a single main room with a ragged sofa that looked as if it could change into a bed, a small kitchenette, and a door that Rebecca guessed contained a bathroom. There was a newer looking curtain hung across the wall next to the sofa, though no light penetrated its edges. Perhaps it was only there to hide the ugly walls. The place wasn't dirty but it was tiny and dark. It must've been over a hundred years old. The only illumination came from the single bulb in the middle of the ceiling, which Steph switched on as they entered.
"Why are we here?" Rebecca asked. Not that she expected an answer that would help in understanding what the hell was happening to her.
"I needed a place where I wouldn't be found until I was able to locate you. No one would think to look for an outsider here. The City doesn't seem to pay particular attention to what the Unemployed do, or where they hang out."
Rebecca felt her stomach tighten. They'd been looking for her, stalking her, for months. If it wasn't for the fact Nick was here, is she hadn't just found out she was a Controller, and that someone else, someone with a destructive machine called a Peacekeeper, seemed to be chasing her, Rebecca would've been out of here as soon as possible. Why had Nick even got himself caught up with these people in the first place?
Nick slipped in through the door behind Steph and squeezed her around the shoulders. "Well, I'm certainly glad it was you Jason sent on ahead." He planted a kiss on her cheek.
Steph blushed. "Stop it, you."
Rebecca raised an eyebrow. Well, that explained one thing.
Jason made his way in and went directly to the tattered excuse for a sofa. He sunk into the cushions, putting his head into his hands.
"Are you sure you're okay?" asked Steph, frowning. "Whoever that was, it seemed like they did a real number on you."
"I'm fine. But we do have bigger problems."
"Such as?" Nick pressed.
Jason straightened up. "You asked me how I knew it was a woman following us? Well, I know her. I've encountered her before."
"You didn't even see who it was."
"I didn't need to. When you control something and someone else is in there with you, trying to control the same thing, you learn things about them. And everyone has different ways of using the Control. Once you've been up against someone more than a few times you begin to recognise their style. I've encountered her before but I haven't seen her in years. I was hoping she'd never bother us again."
"Valerie?" Rebecca tentatively asked.
The name sent a brief shudder through Jason. He fought it down, then looked at Rebecca. "Yes."
"She was the one who picked me up, after... well, you know."
"What did she say to you?"
"Not much," Rebecca shrugged. "I just thought she was trying to help; I mean she was rescuing me from you! Then she was in on my interview with that detective, but I just thought she was working with the police, and..."
"If you've met her before does that mean she's from down below too?" asked Steph. "You've never talked about her. Not to me."
"No. I haven't," Jason said bluntly.
"Well, is she going to be a problem?"
"Probably. She... look, I know her from a long time ago. She's not a nice person. But that doesn't matter right now. There are other things we've got to worry about." He again fixed his attention on Rebecca. "Like getting you safely out of here."
She didn't want his attention on her. Certainly not in the current circumstances. "Woah, hang on. Where exactly do you want to take me? I've only just found out I can control machines; I don't even know what you guys are doing! You haven't really explained things."
Nick grinned broadly; like he usually did at inappropriate times. "We're the resistance."
Rebecca glared at her brother. "Really? The resistance to what?! Is this it?!" She threw her hands in the air, encompassing the small room in a single gesture. "All this?"
"No," said Jason. Then to Nick: "And you're not the resistance. You're just the hired help."
Nick squared his shoulders. "I've got just as much at stake here as you do, Jason. What if I get caught? The System has screwed me over too. I can't make peanuts off of fixing peoples cars and they're practically the backbone of the City!"
"You've got nowhere near as much at stake," Jason snapped. "But you're right about the cars; people would certainly complain if they didn't have their precious little toys."
"Alright!" Steph grabbed Nick's arm, pulling him back. "We don't have time to fight over who's got what at stake. We're in this together now; we need to work on getting out of the City."
"Yeah," said Nick, drawing a breath to calm himself. "You're right. Look Bec, I know you're confused. And I know you hate not knowing what's going on, so if you let me explain it to you..."
"I've already tried," Jason muttered.
"No," Rebecca cut in, "quite frankly you haven't. You threw yourself in front of a bus! And then you tried to kidnap me. And all of a sudden some Peacekeeper machine is chasing me. And then I find out I'm a Controller. Don't get me wrong, that bit's really awesome, but it makes no sense! Why would I be? Why wouldn't I know? If I'm as powerful as you say I am, Jason, wouldn't the System want to use me for something?"
"Oh they're using your alright," Jason said, his voice low. "Just like everyone else. But you can't argue that you're not a Controller now. You know that for a fact. Isn't that enough?"
"You see?" Nick said. He leaned back against the door, his arms folded. "You keep complaining about us being ignorant. But you came here and nearly got yourself and my sister killed. You don't know this City, Jason. Or my sister. You know I could have gotten her to listen ten times faster than you, hard as that is, and we wouldn't be in such a mess."
"I get it, okay?"
"So what is it, Nick?" Rebecca pressed. This was crazy. But perhaps she could count on her brother to talk some sense. "What do these people need me for?"
"What we need you for," Jason said, answering despite the glare that Nick gave him, "is for you to come down below. I've got a job for you. I need you to rescue..." here he faltered. Must've still been feeling sick after what Valerie did to him. "I need you to rescue someone for me. I'm fairly certain you're the only one who can do it."
"Seriously, you came all the way from the City - assuming this 'below' does exist - just to find me? I don't need a job; I already have one! I mean, what do you think I am, some sort of chosen one?"
"No," Jason growled. "That would be ridiculous. It's just..."
"We knew you were a Controller before your little demonstration back there, Bec," said Nick "Shortly after Steph got here and contacted me she managed to dig up your records. Apparently we've got some sort of genetic disposition. Looks like you got all the good genes."
"Mum and Dad weren't Controllers," Rebecca said. "That we knew of."
"Exactly. If it was Dad he hid it really well," Nick shrugged. "And we'd hardly know if it was Mum."
Rebecca snorted. "Yeah, well she went and took off, didn't she? Gods I can't even remember her. You think that cow would care if I was one anyway?" Funny how much you could hate someone you barely remembered.
Jason thumped a fist on the arm of the tattered sofa. "For crying out loud, do you think you know everything!?"
"Don't yell at my sister," Nick growled.
Jason drew in a breath through gritted teeth. "I would just like her to listen to us, alright? Preferably without prattling on about things she doesn't understand."
"I'm trying to listen to you! And maybe I'm prattling because this just doesn't make any sense. Maybe I'm a Controller. But do you expect me to believe there's a below just on your say-so?"
"Look, Bec," said Nick. He was still eyeing Jason warily, as if he expected to have to reprimand him again for yelling at her. Not that she needed her brother to protect her; it was just one of those things Nick seemed to have a hard time letting go of. "I get it if you're not going to believe Jason, he doesn't exactly understand tact, but at least believe me."
"Have you ever been below?"
Nick paused. "No," he said eventually, "but I believe Steph."
"And what's that worth!?" Rebecca burst out. "I don't even understand what you're doing here..."
"It's worth that you're my little sister and I want to look out for you. I know what you're like; you're going to get yourself in trouble sooner or later. You talk too much and you ask too many questions."
Rebecca chewed her lip. She wasn't going to mention what had happened at work only this week. That would only serve to justify Nick's guess. He hadn't seen her in months but he still seemed to have her all worked out.
"At least this way we can get you out and you'll be able to do some good. Steph's told me what goes on below. If these guys are right about you, you could help a lot."
"By saving one person?"
Nick thought for a moment. "Well, Jason told me he'd give me more detail on who and why once we'd got you here too. So he can tell you, unless he's still pouting."
Jason seemed to be lost in thought, staring at some indeterminate point on the far wall. But he looked up as Nick spoke his name.
"Well?" Nick pressed.
Jason leaned back in the sofa and folded his arms. It took him a moment before he eventually spoke. When he did, he looked Rebecca directly in the eye. "There isn't much more to tell. Nothing important anyway. Just that she's a powerful Controller. A lot more powerful than any Controllers we have now; certainly a lot more powerful than me. If we had her back we would actually have a chance of standing up to the City."
Rebecca thought about this for a moment. If all they were telling her was true, using her newfound ability to rescue someone would be pretty awesome. But then there was the thing chasing her. And Jason Gray.
And if she did get involved with these guys, what would that mean for her job? She was in enough trouble there already. And Nick. He was already involved in all this. Could she get him out of it? Extricate herself and her brother before they did anything else that would jeopardise their careers?
Jason shifted his weight on the sofa. "We really need you for this, Rebecca," he began.
Rebecca's phone let out a shrill chirp. She snatched it out of her pocket and looked at the screen.
Jason huffed. "I'm starting to hate that thing nearly as much as your car," he said to Nick.
"I need to take this..." It was Leah. She didn't really need to take it. But it would give her an excuse to find some space to think. She slipped out the door and out onto the landing.
Valerie awoke with a jolt. Immediately she ascertained her position; the backseat of a moving vehicle. The world was still blurry, the motion of the vehicle and the faint hum of its anti-gravs fighting to lull her back into unconsciousness. Valerie pushed herself upright. With any luck there was not too much damage and the movement would drag her fully awake instead of slamming her back into darkness.
"There's no need to panic."
Valerie's vision cleared completely. Sitting next to her was a man. He was middle aged, beginning to go bald and dressed in a smart suit. "I don't panic."
A faint smile. "I know. I've read you're record."
Valerie raised an eyebrow. "All of it?" she asked cautiously.
"As much as I needed to know," the man replied. "I know you have a rather interesting past. Not many people get the opportunity to change careers. Fewer still are moved to the City."
Valerie shifted uncomfortably. "That wasn't really my choice."
"I know. But now it seems we've got a bit of a problem. One you were kind enough to identify. Jason Gray. You've dealt with him before."
Not a question. Valerie answered it anyway. "Yes."
"What about the girl?"
"I've never seen her before. She was simply a job, which I'm sure you're aware of. I was to see if she was going to cause issues and retrench her if so. She's a threat?"
"Would you be chasing her if she wasn't?"
Either this man didn't know or he wasn't supposed to let her know. "I've followed up on many people who have been no threat at all. Though I’ve found it pays to be safe and remove any potential problems regardless.”
The man smiled faintly. “A good strategy. We didn't know of Jason Gray's involvement or that he was in the City until we got your call. But a few months ago Rebecca Forsythe's records were accessed by an unknown entity. We suspected rebel involvement. Apart from a few minor red flags raised by her behaviour in her work environment, this is why you were given the job to follow up on her. Retrenching her could have solved the problem, or at least set back the rebels plans, whatever these may be.”
They'd known the resistance was involved? “Her files were accessed a few months ago? I only got the job a day ago,” Valerie said curtly. How did the System expect her to deal with the problem on such short notice? “And I was under the impression my services in respect to the resistance were no longer required? That was why I was sent here, wasn't it?"
"I wouldn't know about your services," said the man. "But I'm not surprised it took so long to render them with respect to the girl. Things can move slowly, if they are to pass through the proper channels. But we all need to work within the System. Sometimes there are shortfalls."
"I have never gone outside the will of the System," Valerie said coldly. Though sometimes it frustrated her immensely.
"The fact Jason Gray is in the City is worrying itself," the man continued, ignoring her comment. "The fact he wants this girl could mean almost anything. She definitely has Controller tendencies, perhaps even good ones. But nothing spectacular beyond that. Our analysts could not determine why the resistance would want her over any other latent Controller. Whatever Gray has in mind for her, it could be anything. And we can't let him do anything that would threaten the City." The man studied her for a moment, his head leaning ever so slightly to the side. "You knew the man. Tell me, is there any reason he might want her?"
Valerie paused for a moment. She had her suspicions but they were only that. She shrugged. "No, not really. Perhaps Jason just has something for a pretty face."
The man simply nodded and handed her a small data drive. "This contains everything you need to know on your permissible mission actions."
Valerie took it. "Can you give me an idea as to the contents?"
"Basically you're to do anything necessary to follow Jason Gray and find out what he wants with the girl. And what threat this poses."
"And what about my Peacekeeper? I'm not sure if it was damaged, or..."
"Your Peacekeeper is fine. Minor damage. The nanites have repaired it." The man rubbed at his chin. "Actually, I'm surprised they let you keep it. I'm surprised you got away with some of the things you did to procure Rebecca in the first place. I was informed you destroyed a few police vehicles. And a few police."
"Yes, she was a high priority."
"Well, that certainly is an abnormality. I don't know of any Retrenchers who would get away with that. Or who have a Peacekeeper."
Valerie stared at him. She wasn't supposed to have her Peacekeeper here? She'd assumed the opposite, that the Retrenchers in the City too had the devices, they were simply required to keep their existence quiet. There had never been any attempt to take hers away from her.
"Perhaps they planned to use you again all along. Wouldn't want you to get rusty, hey?"
"But I changed careers ten years ago. Why would they..."
The man smiled faintly. “Changing careers isn't really an option, Valerie. I would have thought you'd figured that out in your current line of work."